If I tried to list all of the things to do and places to see in the Dordogne Valley, you would be reading for a week. Instead we have picked some of our favourites:
Rocamadour is one of the outstanding sights of France and is well worth including in your itinerary. Clinging to the cliffs, the medieval pilgrimage site is amazingly well preserved and the buildings are stunning. But it’s not all about the history – if you have children with you (or not – I enjoy a trip myself) pop into La Foret de Singes and feed the Barbary apes in their 20 hectare forest home or visit the Rocher des Aigles and watch the eagles and raptors on their flights across the valley. Both centres do good work for the conservation of endangered species and the settings are fabulous. If you are here in September don’t miss the International Balloon festival when you can see dozens of hot air balloons take off below Rocamadour and travel down the River valley.
2. The Dordogne and Lot Rivers
The rivers define this area – historically they were key to the area’s development and wealth and now they are great fun. Explore on foot; there are some great walks along the banks but to really make the most of it hire canoes or take a trip on one of the traditional river boats. It is really is the best way to see the area. Drift through stunning scenery, picnic on one of the beaches and swim in the very clean water. It’s not white water rafting and is safe for children of all ages (subject to height restrictions).
3. Lose yourself in a Market
The south-west of France is famous for its markets and you won’t find any more typical than in the Dordogne and Lot. It almost doesn’t matter which one you visit – they all have the same charm and amazingly fresh produce. Sarlat and Cahors both have very large Saturday and Wednesday markets and they are worth a trip – enjoy the shopping with stalls spreading through the medieval streets and then sit down outside one of the many cafes and indulge in some people watching – I can guarantee there will be some entertaining characters. For something a little smaller, the local markets of Martel and Souillac are on our doorstep and are both worth a visit. The fish van at Souillac has great, fresh stock and the waffle stall is always on my list!
4. Moulin de Cougnaguet
Sitting in a beautiful valley on the River Ouysse just a couple of kilometres from Rocamadour, this charming mill is well worth a visit. There’s nothing “in your face” about it – it’s calm, solid and straight out of the pages of a history book. Work on the mill started in 1292 and was completed in 1350 – and if one of those original builders paid a visit tomorrow I don’t think he would find much changed. The setting is lovely and you will often find artists set up around the mill trying to do it justice. Only a few kilometres from us it’s well worth stopping in there and taking the tour – there’s a picnic area as well so you can make the most of the idyllic setting.
5. The Dordogne Valley – land of 1001 castles
The Dordogne and Lot have more than their fair share of castles – you can hardly go anywhere without driving past half a dozen of them. Many of them are a result of the 100 years war between the English and the French and while some were given a Renaissance face lift, many of them retain their “medieval-ness”. Because they are all so different it’s hard to pick a favourite so I have narrowed it down to three although you wouldn’t go far wrong with any of them.
For medieval charm – Chateau de Castelnaud la Chapelle – looking out across the Dordogne and Céou valleys, above a beautiful village, the castle is huge and very well preserved. The most visited castle in the south-west of France, you can tour many of its original rooms including the artillery tower, donjon and kitchens. The ‘Museum of War and the Middle Ages’ at the chateau contains a fascinating collection of arms and armaments, full-size copies of medieval war machines including trebuchets and mangonels and during the summer there are animations of medieval life throughout the day.
For castle-glitz – Chateau des Milandes – built in the 15th century, the castle was rescued from ruin by the legendary music hall star Josephine Baker who made it her home for many years. The interior is now restored and maintained in the 1930’s style in which Josephine Baker decorated it. There are exhibitions and displays commemorating the life of Josephine, who started in the clubs of New York, before moving to France where she was very well received and where she played a significant role in the resistance during World War II. The chateau is one of the prettiest in this area, and the turrets, pointy roofs, mullioned and stained glass windows, gargoyles all sit together beautifully. The immaculate gardens are lovely and there is a very well-presented free flight Bird display which the children love.
For restrained charm Chateau de Fenelon – dating originally from the 13th century, but heavily refurbished in the 16th century. This is a beautiful castle on a rocky promontory, surrounded by a triple wall and terraces. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Fenelon was a Cathar stronghold and was strategically important during the Hundred Years War. The later refurbishments are in Gothic style and following this more fortifications were added for the Wars of Religion – we might be sleepy now, but it was one battle after another in those days. You can see the double line of fortifications in front of the castle and another behind it with several towers in the defensive walls and as part of the castle itself. The castle has a different appearance on each side. The prettiest is the side with the terrace which has some magnificent views over the Dordogne. The rooms in the castle are all decorated with lovely furnishings and tapestries – you might recognise some of the castle from the Drew Barrymore film ‘Ever After’ .
6. Hidden Treasures
The Dordogne and Lot boast nearly as many caves as they do castles and many are open to the public. The caves are generally known for either their prehistoric art or for their incredible rock formations. Explore these natural and ancient masterpieces, formed over hundreds and thousands of years.
The Lascaux Caves are a UNESCO heritage site. Known as the ‘Sistine Chapel of cave art’ the cave contains 2,000 individual images, including the largest prehistoric artwork ever found in Europe. Most depict animals but there are also mysterious signs and geometric symbols, as well as a human figure with a bird’s head, known as the ‘wounded hunter’. Because of the damage visitors were causing to the originals an excellent replica of the most important sections of the cave was created nearby. Known as Lascaux II, it includes the Salle des Taureaux, famous for its images of crimson aurochs and dappled horses, as well as a gallery lined with deer. This is a very popular attraction and if you are visiting in the summer I would recommend you book online before you go, particularly if you want a tour in English.
For cave formations, the very popular Gouffre de Padirac is easily reached from here but I prefer the much closer Grottes de Lacave which is just down the road. 75 metres deep – the enormous cave system is a treasure trove of rock formations and a huge underground lake. Part of the visit is enjoyed from the comfort of a little electric train however I don’t recommend this trip for very small children or the infirm –there’s quite a lot of walking and the footing is a little uneven in places – it’s not rock climbing but even so.
7. A Day at the Beach
We are far from the coast but here in the Dordogne Valley you can still enjoy a “beach” trip. The slow moving rivers are very safe for children and the beaches are a great spot for a relaxing picnic and occasional paddle. Make it a stop on a canoe trip or just pop down for the afternoon. There are lovely spots at Souillac and St Julien de Lampon and you can while away hours watching the fish, and the world, go by.
8. The Moulin de Saut
The area is criss-crossed with some fabulous walking and cycling routes and I would be spoilt for choice if I had to pick an absolute favourite but Le Moulin du Saut would be at the top of the list and is suitable for all levels barring the very young or infirm. The walk is about 5 kms long and is a loop so no problem getting back to your car. The route takes in some stunning views of the Alzou valley and the ruins of the mill that the walk is named for. During some months of the year there are “animations” along the walk and it is possible to do it as a guided group which you can arrange at the tourist office but honestly it’s a very simple walk to do alone.
9. Sarlat at Night
There are lots of things to do in the evenings but one of my favourites is to enjoy the beautiful town of Sarlat by gaslight.
The town of Sarlat is one of the jewels of the Dordogne Valley and it’s always popular with tourists so beat the crowds and enjoy a visit in the evening. The beautiful winding medieval streets are softly illuminated with very atmospheric gas lamps and are full of street performers, vetted and licensed by the town. Sit outside at one of the many bars and restaurants and take in the sights. The performers rotate so you don’t have to move far but a walk through the town on a warm summer’s evening is well worth the effort. This town wins hands down for atmosphere.
10. People watching in Martel
Martel is a lovely little town and is one of the places you might choose to do your shopping during your stay with us. There is a good supermarket, large post office and several banks with ATMs. While you are there take a breath and enjoy a cup of coffee at Le Crepuscule. In fact, as you’re on holiday, why not treat yourselves to a crepe as well? It’s a quaint place with a lovely view and you can happily sit there and watch the world go by. The service isn’t the fastest but then why rush?
If you are in the mood for a proper meal you could try their menu or two of our favourite local restaurants are also in Martel – Le Petit Moulin and Au Hasard Balthazar are just a short stroll away.
Please don’t hesitate to ask us any questions that you may have regarding the area, the activities, the property, availability, booking or anything else that’s on your mind. We are online every day and we are always happy to help.